Conditions on the prison ship Argenta were "unbelievable" says Florida businesswoman turned author Denise Kleinrichert who has just penned the hidden history of the 1920s' floating gulag.
"I don't imagine that prisoners anywhere in the world would suffer such terrible conditions today but even by the standards of the 1920s what the men went through was truly terrible," she says of the prison ship which lay anchored in Belfast harbour from 1922-1924.
Cloistered below decks in cages which held 50 internees, the prisoners were forced to use broken toilets which overflowed frequently into their communal area. Deprived off tables, the already weakened men ate off the floor, frequently succumbing to disease and illness as a result.
Speaking with the Andersonstown News on her arrival from the US to promote her new book, Republican Internment and the Prison Ship Argenta 1922, Denise Kleinrichert says the treatment of the men was "a clear human rights violation". Rounded up in 1921 and 1922 by the fledgling unionist administration at Stormont, the internees represented the cream of the nationalist community. Doctors, lawyers, businessmen, and teachers — many of whom had refused to take the oath of loyalty demanded by the new state — suffered side-by-side with tradesmen and small farmers. Yet only an estimated 10% of the 900 internees were active IRA men. The rest, says Denise, were "the usual suspects".
Sharing a common plight, the men were still divided by their political allegiance: The pro-Treaty republicans loyal to Collins were separated from the minority anti-Treaty faction.
Abandoned by De Valera in the South and by the British Government in London, the men responded with a series of anguished protests which bear an uncanny similarity with the H-Block struggle - right down to the Irish classes, the election of a prisoner MP and bold escape bids. Short hunger strikes in protest at the deplorable quality of the food were common while one major fast lasting 20 days in November 1923 led to the leaders being moved from the ship to prisons on the mainland. Already undernourished, some of the men were released when the authorities realised they were at death's door and subsequently died at home.
No wash protests left the internees on their release with huge blanketmen-style beards.
Denise's dedicates her opus to a grandfather she never met. James Goodman from Fintona in Co Tyrone was arrested while returning from an IRA meeting in January 1922 and dispatched to the prison ship. He died aged just 43 in 1936 in his adopted city of Toronto. His family link his death to the unhealthy conditions on the Argenta and an injury he apparently sustained on board.
"This whole process was about finding out the truth about my grandfather," explains Denise. "It is a tribute to him and to all the men and women interned at that time, especially those who had to live below decks on the Argenta and whose lives were impacted forever by their imprisonment. The legacy of their suffering was passed onto their families."
The Public Record Office of Northern Ireland at first refused to throw open the files on the Argenta when Denise started her research in 1995. However, after several requests, she received her grandfather's secret S file which was originally to have remained closed until 2022.
"It was amazing to get his file in my hands," she says. "I felt his life come to life for me. I got some glimpse of what his life must have been like for that small period of time. I never met my grandfather and that would be the case for most of the descendants of the men but these files can illuminate the gaps in their lives which they may not have known about since very often the men didn't talk about what happened. They were like war veterans who didn't talk about the battles they fought. I believe that for many it was a form of post-traumatic war syndrome."
Almost 80 years after the horror of the SS Argenta, 'National Security' interests dictate that some files still remain firmly closed. Among the files destined to remain Top Secret until 2020 is that of Dawson Bates, the Unionist Minister responsible for the Argenta agony.
The release of the remaining files would "complete the circle," says Denise. "My book is as complete as it can be but the remaining files should be released so that the whole story can be told."
But the work of "remembering and memorialising" the men, perhaps by putting some artifacts from the prison on permanent display, can start now, says Denise. "Many of them were 'pressed into service'. They weren't active in a military campaign and were interned for no other reason than that they were the victims of a witch hunt." They were physically and politically "isolated and abandoned". "Churchill said (to the unionists) 'go ahead and do what you gotta do' while the message from the South was 'we don't want to deal with you and we can't help you' After the death of Collins, there was no-one in the South with any interest in the North. Cahir Healy, who was elected as an MP while on the Argenta, shows in his correspondence his increasing frustration at the lack of assistance."
Over 100 descendants of the Argenta men co-operated with Denise in the compilation of her research which began in 1995 with her appeal for information through this paper. Supportive relatives provided her not only with their reminiscences but with old albums rich in drawings, woven shawls and priceless handicrafts from the ship. "That the prisoners could produce drawings and crafts of such beauty in the midst of their suffering was truly remarkable. For many of the relatives, it was the first time they had talked about their grandfather and to tell their stories was a great relief and a great release. This is my ninth visit to Ireland but in many ways I'm resurfacing with the book these people were waiting for. I think at the launch in Belfast (Linen Hall Library 6.30pm Wednesday), we'll see not anger or hatred but sadness at what has happened mixed with joy at the fact that the story is now out."
S FILES OPEN:
Courtesy of Denise Kleinrichert's lobbying efforts, the files of all the internees — most of them named in an appendix to her book — are now available for viewing at the Records Office (phone ++44-90-255825). More details are also available on her own site.